Today, a reading recommendation. Take this deep dive into the workings of the Clinton Foundation, because it’s the best piece you’ll read this week. Naturally, it details the Clintons’ international entanglements, but, more importantly, it demonstrates that Bill and Hillary are unlike any other spouses we’ve ever seen in American politics.
Which, for candidate Hillary, is not necessarily a good thing.
She was in Bill’s shadow 40 years ago when she agreed to move to Arkansas for his political career. But today, even as an ex-senator, ex-secretary of state, and two-time presidential candidate, she’s still in his shadow. Four years ago, we saw how difficult it was for Hillary to run a campaign with an ex-president in the household, shooting off his mouth at untimely moments. And it’s arguably more difficult now, thanks to Bill’s peripatetic globe-trotting and money-vacuuming.
What’s important to remember – and the Washington Post story doesn’t focus on this – is that Bill is a new brand of White House retiree. Previous ex-presidents have managed to stay in the public eye – Herbert Hoover went to 22 countries in 1946, to help coordinate America’s response to postwar hunger crisis; Richard Nixon, at President Reagan’s behest, went to the Soviet Union to size up Mikhail Gorbachev; Jimmy Carter has monitored elections all over the world and launched a think tank to help solve international disputes – but just as often, ex-presidents have kicked back, written their memoirs, played some golf (Ike, Ford), and sometimes tried to rehab their reputations (Hoover, Nixon).
But Bill, with his protean ego and intellect, and unemployed at age 54, wanted something far more. As the Post story says, he became “a new kind of post-presidential celebrity: a convener who wrangles rich people’s money for people’s problems….He wanted to do something big. And something international.” Who else could put Chevy Chase, a former president of Mexico, the founders of Google, and John Cusack on the same private Saudi jet?
The more rich people he met during the past decade, the more networking he did, the more “brainstorms” he experienced, the more the Clinton Foundation (and its spinoffs) grew and coiled like kudzu vines. The foundation became, in the Post story’s words, “a foundation about everything,” touching lives in 180 countries – tackling childhood obesity, poverty in Africa, high AIDS drug prices, the list is endless. He was “inhabiting a role he had created for himself…the world’s middleman.”
Bill said he wanted to do good works as a private citizen. But there was something else, something just as important: “For Clinton, the foundation had re-created many of the things he loved about the presidency – cheering crowds, an army of aides….Even better, in this job, there were no foreign crises to derail his plans. And no meddling Republicans. In fact, the foundation drew contributions from some who were once Clinton’s most bitter GOP enemies, including Newsmax chief executive Christopher Ruddy and conservative mega-donor Richard Mellon Scaife. There was also no date when the ride had to end.”
In short, he created a supra-presidency for himself. Which has only made life difficult for his spouse, because now it’s impossible to tell where his turf ends and hers begins.
His huge shadow has cast a pall over her campaign. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have donated to the foundation; have they done so in the belief that a President Hillary would favor them in international disputes? What about the donor-businessman who’s reportedly close to the ruler of Nigeria? Or the many business leaders who have given money, like Rupert Murdoch?
The foundation and its related charities have raised $2 billion worldwide. As I wrote six weeks ago, “It would be naive in the extreme to believe that the foundation’s heavy hitters have ponied up big bucks without expecting anything in return.” The foundation stories have helped flatten her poll ratings; even some of her supporters fret about perceived conflicts. And yet, how do you prove a negative?
It’s possible, in the end, that the Bill factor won’t matter much, that the only people who care about it are Hillary-haters who’d never vote for her anyway. And 16 months from now, swing voters will be weighing her against a Republican foe with flaws of his own. (In a debate, I’d love to hear her critique Scott Walker’s hilarious claim that mandatory ultrasounds for women seeking abortions are “a cool thing.” Or Jeb Bush’s hilarious claim that climate-change science is “convoluted.”) But relegating Bill to the shadows may prove to be her biggest challenge.